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Semester on the high seas: Ariana Sharma ’16 sails the South Pacific doing climate change research.

When Ariana Sharma ’16 enrolled at Vassar, she had no plans to study abroad. “My feeling was, ‘Why leave this place until you have to?’” Sharma says. Her plans changed last fall when she spied a picture of a sailing ship on a bulletin board in the College Center that was advertising overseas study programs. She ended up spending part of the spring semester on that ship about as far away from Vassar as you can get.

Sharma, a physics major from Katy TX, was one of 24 undergraduates from across the country who studied climate change in the South Pacific while sailing a 134-foot brigantine, the SSV Robert C. Seamans, from New Zealand to Tahiti. The 3,500-mile research expedition, dubbed SEA Semester, was sponsored by the Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole, MA.

Like about half the students on the trip, Sharma knew nothing about sailing before the voyage. She learned some of the basics of navigation and seamanship during the first half of a six-week orientation program at Woods Hole in February and March, and the group spent a few days doing some hands-on training in New Zealand before they set sail for Tahiti.  The voyage began March 25 and ended May 1. “I’d never been on a boat like that before, and I’m not usually an adventurous person,” Sharma says, “but this was something I really wanted to do.”

During their training session at Woods Hole, the students also took an introductory course in oceanography and picked specific topics for their research. Sharma and one other student decided to team up on a project to analyze the patterns of ocean currents. Gathering information on ocean temperature, salinity and velocity of ocean currents and tracking changes in the data over time, enables scientists to analyze the interaction between the oceans and the earth’s changing climate. Because the ocean between New Zealand and Tahiti is so remote, little is known about its ecosystems or currents there, Sharma says.

“That part of the South Pacific contains a mixture of cold, Antarctic water from the south and much warmer, sub-tropical water from the north,” she explains. “We wanted to measure the temperature and salinity of the water and learn more about the currents.”

The students obtained samples of the water by deploying a “CTD Profiler,” which was tethered on a 1,000-meter cable and contained a batch of small cylinders, each of which opened and closed at specific depths as it was lowered into the water.  They also measured the velocity of the currents using an “Acoustic Current Doppler Profiler,” which sends sound waves into the ocean and tracks them as they bounce off plankton and other objects in the water.

At the end of the trip, Sharma and her research partner wrote a paper on their findings. Scientists at the Sea Education Association will use the data as part of their  ongoing studies of climate change.

Running experiments and writing up their findings took the bulk of their time, but  the students had ample opportunity for fun, and more advanced training in the science of sailing as well, Sharma says.  “We had many different interests and came from many different backgrounds, ranging from geology to classical violin,” she says. “One of the best parts of this program was working with other students who were really passionate about learning.”

“At port stops, we jumped off the bowsprit and swam around the boat and went snorkeling,” Sharma adds. “And there were times I just enjoyed climbing up the rigging and spending some time alone, just soaking in where I was and what I was doing.”

A few weeks into the voyage, the students and crew hid all their GPS devices and navigated the old-fashioned way. “That was one of the coolest parts of the trip, getting out our sextants at noon and twilight and charting our course with the sun and the stars,” she says.

Sharma says she hasn’t decided whether to apply what she learned on the trip to her studies at Vassar next year. “I don’t have any specific plans,” she says, “but whatever I decide, it was reaffirming to do something so out of the ordinary. This program gave me a new perspective on what it means to be successful.”

---By Larry Hertz

Photos courtesy of Ariana Sharma ’16 and fellow crew members.

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, May 22, 2015